Saturday, August 22, 2015

Guest Post: "The New Antinomianism: Denying Thesis 18 of Law and Gospel” By Rev. Mark A. Preus

The New Antinomianism: Denying Thesis 18 of Law and Gospel
By Rev. Mark A. Preus

I know you’ll all want sources.  “Where have you seen this?”  “Who said this?”  I can’t give you any right now.  I’ve just seen it happen, and I think that if you’re reading this, you probably have too.   I’ve heard it preached.  I’ve read sermons, blogposts, Facebook statuses, etc.  It’s the belief that Christians are dead in sin, that their wills are bound as much as any unregenerate’s will is.  It’s been confessed in the ELCA for decades now.  The people say in the confession of sin, “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” (Lutheran Book of Worship)    

Isn’t this the truth, though?  Don’t we believe in the bondage of the will?  Does Jesus say, “Whoever sins is a slave to sin?”  Doesn’t Paul say, “But I am carnal, sold under sin?” and “With my flesh I serve the law of sin?”  

I suppose it all has to do with the old Lutheran adage simul iustus et peccator – same time righteous and a sinner.  What role does sin play in the life of a believer?  We know that we are all still sinners.  Paul calls himself the chief of sinners in the present tense in 1 Timothy.  But we also confess that we are freed from sin.  “The Law of the Spirit of life has set me free from the Law of sin and death.” (Rom. 8:2)  “If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed.”  (John 8:36)  “And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness…But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.” (Rom. 6:18,22)  So Christians are no longer bound by sin, though they still sin.  They are free, though they still feel sin’s bondage in their flesh.  As the communion hymn goes, “Lord, I confess my sins / And mourn their wretched bands; / A contrite heart is sure to find / Forgiveness at your hands.” 

C. F. W. Walther’s eighteenth thesis on Law and Gospel goes like this, “…[T]he Word of God is not rightly divided when the universal corruption of mankind is described in such a manner as to create the impression that even true believers are still under the spell of ruling sins and are sinning purposely.” (The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel, trans., W.H.T. Dau (St. Louis: CPH, 1986), 3)  

In explaining this, Walther says at the outset of his lecture on this thesis, “You will observe that I am speaking of the claim that the universal corruption of mankind embraces living in dominant and willful sins on the part of believers.  No one who is conversant with the pure doctrine will make the unqualified assertion that a Christian can be a fornicator or adulterer. Such a thought would not enter the mind of a true teacher of the Word of God.” (Law and Gospel, 318)

Walther says this mistake is often “made by zealous ministers and also by theological students.”  They don’t qualify their statement by saying “as we are by nature” or “as long as a person is still in the state of natural depravity and is unregenerate” (not born again).  Walther goes on, “When you speak of ‘abominable’ sinners, you must not refer to Christians, in whom we find, on the one hand, weaknesses, which are covered with the righteousness of Christ, and, on the other hand, good deeds, which God does through them and which are pleasing to Him.”  

Do you see what I mean?  How often do we say “I’m just as much a sinner as the unbelievers are?”  Maybe we are, according to our nature, but not insofar as we are Christians.  But what this leads to is more dangerous doctrine.  I once heard a theological professor say to a group of students, “We don’t act any different than the heathen.”  

Is that really so?  I think this might be confusing Luther’s doctrine of vocation, where he often speaks of the Christian’s good works not looking in any way different than the unbeliever’s so-called good works.  But Luther would never say, as Scripture doesn’t say, that Christians’ sins are the same as unbelievers’ sins.  On the contrary, “Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the Law, but under grace.”  Our sins are covered by the grace of God, and not only this, but God has begun to do good works in us, so that he suppresses the Old Adam so that he doesn’t gain the upper hand.  Those who are in Christ do not belong to sin or serve it.  They serve God.  

Luther explains it this way in our Confessions, “It is, accordingly, necessary to know and to teach that when holy men, still having and feeling original sin, also daily repenting of and striving with it, happen to fall into manifest sins, as David into adultery, murder, and blasphemy, that then faith and the Holy Ghost has departed from them [they cast out faith and the Holy Ghost]. For the Holy Ghost does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so as to be accomplished, but represses and restrains it so that it must not do what it wishes. But if it does what it wishes, the Holy Ghost and faith are [certainly] not present. For St. John says, 1 John 3:9: Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, ... and he cannot sin. And yet it is also the truth when the same St. John says, 1:8: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (SA III.III.43)  

What is at stake here is the truth of the Gospel!  The Gospel is only for beggars who truly know their sin.  When we find ourselves ruled by sins, we should be afraid, as David was, who after his return to Christ sang out, “And take not Your Holy Spirit from me!”  We should never simply view our sins as something that makes us miserable and feel bad, but as what calls God’s wrath upon us and separates us from him.  

But this error, that Christians can be called Christians properly while unrepentant and letting sin rule over them, has far-reaching consequences.  Look at the homosexual debate.  How many times have nominal Christians shouted out the Gospel that God forgives homosexuality without actually requiring repentance?  “All sins are the same,” they say, “and so the lust in your heart after a woman is the same as the sin of Sodom, therefore you can’t judge him; if you claim forgiveness, so can he.”  But must I not repent of the lust in my heart?  Is there no distinction between feeling my sins of weakness which by God’s grace I crucify and drown every day in my baptism and willful and deliberate sins about which a person has no remorse?  In our zeal to destroy the hypocrisy of the Pharisees have we embraced hypocrisy as something normal for Christians?  It seems the only way to deal with our hypocrisy is simply to say that we are ruled by sins just as much as the heathen are, and in so doing, we fall into greater hypocrisy, that of “having the form of godliness but denying its power.” 

What do we say to the Christian who struggles with transsexual thoughts?  Does it really matter whether he thinks his sin is a disease or a medical condition?  Does that make it any less sin to subvert the order of creation?  What do we say to the drunk who is addicted to booze or the druggy who is addicted to narcotics, or the glutton, who can’t control his eating?  Heap up all the scientists who monitor brain patterns and find biological or epigenetic or genetic “causes” for all these things, and does that change the face that these sins can’t rule over a Christian, that when one is ruled by them he has lost faith in the Gospel, lost the Holy Spirit, and needs to repent of and abhor his sin before he will actually receive the forgiveness of sins?  

What happens to the Gospel when it is received by those who don’t believe that the Gospel actually frees them from their sin?  They change it into a different gospel.  Even if what they hear is the pure, unvarnished truth of the atonement, in their minds the gospel is no longer the forgiveness of sins.  It becomes exactly what St. Peter describes it, “a cloak for vice.”  It is a different gospel, which, even if an angel from heaven were to preach it, we should call anathema.  

The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.  Its goal is to bring us to heaven.  Its goal is to comfort the poor, miserable sinners who daily struggle and slip and fall.  It gives certainty when the Law gives only uncertainty.  It reveals the blood and righteousness of our God who is our brother and will never cast aside any sinner who hears his voice, repents and believes in him.  It is the power to save the homosexual from his sin so that even as his flesh desires to join with the heathen, his soul cries out not with a spirit of bondage, but with the Spirit of Christ, “Abba, Father.”  The Gospel is the power to comfort a man who wants to be a woman, as he can’t stop the thoughts from coming into his head, and the world and those who worship earthly happiness tell him to follow his heart’s desire that promises peace in giving in – then the Gospel comes again and again and shouts into the soul of this poor creature, “This man is mine.  He is my baptized son.  I claimed his sins as my own, and I have the right to forgive them as often as they happen because they all pierced me and lost their power to kill.”  

The New Antinomianism is anti-Gospel, just as the former antinomianism was.  In an effort to show mercy it shows no mercy by excusing sin and refusing to recognize its consequences.  If you have seen it, beware.  If you haven’t seen it, or don’t think it exists, then you probably haven’t been paying attention.  

Rev. Mark A. Preus is pastor of St. Andrew's Lutheran Church and Campus Center, Laramie, Wyoming. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Christianity is taken seriously in the LCMS

Since some of the drama surrounding the curious case of Rev. Dr. Matthew Becker has played out upon this website (see A Useful Discussion), I commend the following analysis of the ensuing drama over the dismissal of Rev. Dr. Becker, which was made public by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Monday, July 20.

The analysis comes from Mr. Aaron Wolf, a lay member of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and managing editor for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, in a blog post on the Chronicles blog (read the entire article linked here).

The conclusion of the piece says it all: “Meanwhile, I’d like to thank the Post-Dispatch for reporting on this little bit of inside baseball.  It’s far from an embarrassing exposé.  If anything, it says that Christianity is taken seriously in the LCMS.” 

Indeed, we do take it seriously. And that is the point really. Despite the fact that some may consider this bad press, it is just the opposite. It is evidence that the Spirit is still at work among us to lead us into all the truth (John 16:13). 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Report on Resolution 4-06A

The Office of the President of the LCMS has issued the report from the Task Force regarding Licensed Lay Deacons as called for by the 2013 Convention. Gottesdienst has published many things over the years regarding AC XIV and the Wichita Resolution. Here are the proposals from the Task Force (as quoted in their Executive Summary):
After visitations to districts, discussions with lay deacons and supervising pastors, consultation with the Council of Presidents, and input from theologians, the Task Force is hereby reporting to the Synod as mandated by 2013 Res. 4-06A. Briefly, we propose that:
1. Lay deacons who are regularly serving pastorally—as the de facto pastors of LCMS congregations—should be examined by a special LCMS colloquy process, receive further theological preparation where necessary, and be approved for ordination. Their roster status would be that of a Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP). (See Recommendation 1.)
2. The ongoing reality of geographic, financial, and demographic challenges that make it difficult to fill the calling needs of LCMS congregations and missions should be addressed by means of SMP and various other non-residential pastoral training programs in which future pastors are identified locally and then prepared for service.
Need-based financial assistance for preparation will be available through the Pastoral Education Department of the LCMS. (See Recommendations 2 and 3.)
3. Districts should not neglect to explore other means of addressing the challenges to provide the ministry of Word and Sacrament for its congregations and missions. Such means include multi-point parishes, technological aids, and greater use of inactive pastors. (See Recommendations 4, 5, and 6.)
4. The role of the royal priesthood of baptized believers is not demeaned, but enhanced by a right understanding and practice of the Office of Public Ministry, for as believers share the Gospel in their daily lives and vocations, they are and always have been the primary arm of Christian outreach to an unbelieving world. This evangelistic
or witnessing role should be emphasized and enhanced, not diminished. (See Recommendations 7 and 8.)
May the Holy Spirit guide the discussion and consideration of this report, in the name of Christ Jesus, to the glory
of the Father. 
Rev. President Harrison and this Task Force deserve our thanks and our support in seeing this through to the 2016 Convention. They have exercised calm churchmanship while not shying away from actually leading. This is good news. This is a good proposal to bring our practice in line with our Confession. This use of the SMP program was discussed at the 2007 Convention and was the deciding factor in many a confessional vote for the program (including more than one Gottesdienst editor in attendance as delegates in 2007). There has been much concern over how the SMP program has been operated. There’s always room for improvement. But the fact remains that SMP leads to ordination, to men rite vocatus. We can urge and argue for better training within the program, greater oversight at the seminaries, etc. Again: always room for improvement. But this is what we hoped SMP would indeed be used for: to give the people of God what they deserve and what the Scripture demands: men called, examined, and ordained for the Office of the Holy Ministry.

Every confessional pastor should support this proposal with prayer and with letters to the floor committee who will eventually be charged with drafting these proposals into a Convention Resolution in Milwaukee.  The perfect doesn’t need to be the enemy of the good. Oremus et laboremus . . . . 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Things you may have forgotten you believed in: Mortal Sin and the Loss of Salvation

What does saving faith look like? And what does it not look like? The chief teacher of the Augsburg Confession was not afraid to ask and answer those questions.

It is, accordingly, necessary to know and to teach that when holy men, still having and feeling original sin, also daily repenting of and striving with it, happen to fall into manifest sins, as David into adultery, murder, and blasphemy, that then faith and the Holy Ghost has departed from them [they cast out faith and the Holy Ghost]. For the Holy Ghost does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so as to be accomplished, but represses and restrains it so that it must not do what it wishes. But if it does what it wishes, the Holy Ghost and faith are [certainly] not present. For St. John says, 1 John 3:9: Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, ... and he cannot sin. And yet it is also the truth when the same St. John says, 1:8: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. (SA III.3.43)

So there is a difference between "having and feeling original sin" and, on the other hand, "falling into manifest sins" such as "adultery, murder, blasphemy," etc. So it turns out you can out-sin God, as the Apology confesses: "But when we say of such faith, that it is not mere idle thinking, but that it delivers us from death and begets new life in our hearts, and is a work of the Holy Spirit, it does not co-exist with mortal sin, but produces good fruits only so long as it is really present" (Ap. II.45, emphasis added).

Now, in one sense it is surely true that you can't out-sin God: Jesus died for every sin. But in the sense in which Luther and the Apology are speaking you can out-sin God: you can drive faith and the Holy Spirit away with mortal sin, which is clearly a Confessional category. (This is the problem with theology by catch phrase: most catches phrases are both true and false depending on context and definition of terms.) Of course, you can be brought to repentance and come to faith again, as happened with David (thanks be to God). But it can also happen that you "make a shipwreck of your faith" and are not reconverted like Hymenaeus and Alexander in I Tim 1:19-20.

None of us will ever be rid of the Old Adam until we set aside this flesh. We will all always need to struggle against the flesh in the Romans 7 way: repenting in agony when we end up "doing what we don't want to do." Struggle, stumbling, repenting, trusting and all that continually: that is the Christian life. That is not mortal sin.

But ceasing the struggle, giving in, willfully choosing open sin as something you do want to do....well, that's a different thing altogether: mortal sin.

Failing to distinguish between the common struggle against original sin and falling into open, manifest sin is a failure of the first order in Lutheran theology. It first cropped up in what became known as the Antinomian Controversy. The quotation from Luther above is a summary of his definitive response to this controversy in the Antinomian Theses. You can (and should) read a full treatment of the topic in Walther's Law & Gospel, Thesis X: "In the sixth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher describes faith in a manner as if the mere inert acceptance of truths, even while a person is living in mortal sins, renders that person righteous in the sight of God and saves him; or as if faith makes a person righteous and saves him for the reason that it produces in him love and reformation of his mode of living" [emphasis added].

What is a mortal sin in Lutheran theology? Not the same thing as in Roman theology, of course. In Lutheran theology it is not the objective magnitude of the sin (adultery vs stealing a pack of gum), but rather the willful choosing of the sin against better knowledge. Every sin is in fact mortal objectively: that is, every sin is objectively deserving of death. But not every sin is mortal subjectively, or in effect. Other sins are mortal in effect because they drive faith and the Holy Spirit away. Thus Luther's example of David's prolonged, willful, deliberate sin in the Bathsheba and Uriah episode. A prolonged, willful, deliberate sin of stealing a pack of gum would also be a mortal sin in effect because it too "drives away the Holy Ghost." So it's not the objective magnitude of the sin, but the active, willful, choosing of the sin against better knowledge that is the antithesis of repentant faith and thus mortal sin.

To learn more about mortal sin, the possibility of the loss of salvation, and how this should inform our preaching you can do no better than reading that Thesis X by Walther. To delve more deeply, see the sources collected by Schmid in his Doctrinal Theology (Section 41 I bracketed numbers 15 and 16. Page 421ff if you have the print edition) Schmid collects all the classic Lutheran theological sources from the Book of Concord down through Chemnitz, Gerhard, Hollaz, etc., and arranges them all by topic. So it's very handy on any topic you want to explore and sends you ad fontes.


Thursday, July 2, 2015

Chemnitz on the 8th Commandment and Whether Not All Lies are Sinful

In my discussion on holy marriage at the Gottesdienst Conference in Hamel, IL I brought up the occasional necessity of lying to protect one's spouse. When I referenced the argument below it was discovered that it was not well-known. I am therefore posting it for your edification. The argument is flawless in my mind and well worth working through carefully but here is the money quote: "To conceal something for an honest and just cause in matters which need not be said for reasons of right or usefulness, is not a lie."

Martin Chemntiz. Loci Theologici Vol. 2. Trans. J. A. O. Preus. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1989. 424-425.


In the third place, because at this point the ques¬tion of ordinary lying is pertinent, we shall note the main categories of this subject. Scripture in a general sense prohibits all lying. Eph. 4:25; Ps. 5:6, "You destroy all those who speak lies." Wisd. of Sol. 1:11, "A lying tongue is a man's destruction." 1 John 2:21, "No lie is of the truth." Ecclus. 7:14, "Refuse ever to tell a lie."

But there are in Scripture certain examples of holy people whose lying must not be rashly con-demned. Abraham in Gen. 12:13 and 20:2; Jacob in Gen. 27:19; Joseph dissimulated before his brothers in Gen. 42:7 and 44:15. Of the midwives in Ex. 1:19 and in v. 21 it says, "The Lord built them houses." Luke 24:28, Christ pretended that He was going farther on. 1 Sam. 21:13, David pretended to be insane. 1 Sam. 16:5, when Samuel was about to anoint David so that Saul would not find out, he pretended that he must go to Bethlehem to make a sacrifice. 2 Kings 10:19, when Jehu was about to kill the prophets of Baal, he pretended that he was going to make a solemn sacrifice to Baal. Thus also Judith in 11:4 ff.; Jael in Judg. 4:18. Joshua in 8:5 pretends to flee, and in Joshua 2:4, Rahab deceives. Ex. 5:3, "We shall make a three-day journey to sacrifice." 1 Sam. 19:13, Michal, the wife of David, frees her husband by lying. 1 Sam. 20:28, Jonathan saves David's life by saying something misleading.

From this arises an argument. Augustine simply says [De Mendacio, 21, MPL 40.516], "Anyone who thinks that there is any kind of lie which is not sin is foolishly deceiving himself." Again [ibid., 6, MPL 40.494], "There is no arrangement, no good purpose, no dispensation whereby permission, human or divine, can be given to tell a lie." Again [ibid., MPL 40.495], "Even if someone flees to you who can be saved from death by your lie, you shall not lie. For it is written, 'The mouth which lies kills the soul,' Wisd. of Sol. 1:11. Thus, since eternal life is lost by lying, we must never lie for the sake of someone's temporal life." And Augustine gives his reasons: (1) Scripture simply and in an all-inclusive way prohibits and condemns all lying. (2) Words have been established, not in order that through them men might deceive one another, but in order that through them they might communicate their thoughts to the understanding of another person. Therefore, to use words for a purpose for which they have not been established, but to deceive, is a sin. Likewise, the commandment of God is that man speak in no other way than he believes in his heart. John says in his First Epistle, 2:21, "He who loves a lie is not of the truth." (3) If a person excuses lying on the ground that sometimes we can help someone by lying, then by the same line of reasoning murders and robberies can take place because sometimes we can help a person by these sins. But when he comes to an explanation for the instances in Scripture which we have mentioned above, he is involved in all kinds of contortions. Sometimes, he says, that for those who are not perfect it is only a venial sin. Sometimes he sets up degrees of lies whereby one lie is more serious than another and yet none is without guilt, although some are not of great guilt. Somewhere he says that things which are said in joking should not be included as sins. Gregory says that it is permitted in the Old Testament but prohibited only in the New Testament. Thus in the case of the midwives in Ex. 1:19, because of the guilt of their lying, their eternal reward was commuted to a temporal compensation in that God caused houses to be built for them. Ambrose brings up this question: God gave Abraham the command to sacrifice his son, yet because he did not want to do it, was that a lie? Jerome gets closer: Sometimes dissimulation is useful and lawful because Christ Himself pretended in Luke 24:28. Even Augustine says [ibid., 4, MPL 40.489], "To conceal the truth is one thing; to say something false or to speak a lie is something else." Others, in order to excuse Abraham for dissimulating before his servants in Gen. 22:5, refer to the mystical sense of the passage. There are many such opinions on this subject in Gratian, Question 22,18 and in Lombard 3.38 [MPL 192.833-35].

It is manifest that this question is not answered by this variety of opinions, but rather consciences are only more disturbed. Thus we must seek a proper explanation from the true sources which can be correctly applied to all cases. This can be properly done on the basis of the definition of lying. We must note how perilous generalizations can be when used as definitions, as when someone says that it is a lie not to tell the truth. Augustine is correct when he says [De Mendacio, 4, MPL 40.491], "A lie is a false indication of the voice with the willful intention of deceiving." The meaning of the Eighth Commandment can be derived from these very words. For the definition of lying which is forbidden and condemned in Scripture, these points are required: (1) Something false must be presented. (2) This arises out of a "double heart," as it says in Ps. 12:2, that is, when the conscience is persuaded that the matter is false which is given out as the truth. For when someone says that he believes a certain thing to be true, even though in itself it is false, this is still not a lie, because it is not done against conscience. Conversely, when someone says something which he believes is false, even though in itself it is true, it is still a lie, because it is said contrary to the conscience of the one saying it. On this basis they make a distinction between lying (mentin) and a lie (mendacium dicere). (3) There must be some will or intention of deceiving. A violation of the Eighth Commandment involves speaking against one's neighbor. (4) It is also a lie, when, although there is no desire to harm one's neighbor, a person speaks out of the vanity or pride of his mind and does not have a credible or honest reason. Statements of this kind are the lies of flattery, boasting, and things of this kind. Chrysostom, In Matt., says, "Even if they do not have lies, whom do they deceive, for they are lying to themselves?" Under the heading of a sin of omission is the case of lying by wickedly withholding the truth when it would be right, useful, and necessary to speak it, with the intention of deceiving and harming someone

From these basic points we can easily settle the question as to whether every lie is a mortal sin. It is a lie to speak falsely when the truth has been covered up, whether because of evil desire to work harm or because of the empty pride of one's own mind. Therefore not every hiding of the truth is a lie. For a lie is not only hiding something, but it involves telling a falsehood instead of the truth. Thus it is not only the concealing of a thing but rather the corrupting of a certain matter, contrary to conscience, something which ought to be said, which constitutes a lie. Therefore this rule is sure and correct: To conceal something for an honest and just cause in matters which need not be said for reasons of right or usefulness, is not a lie. Again, when a willful revelation of something would be a sin, it is not a lie to say or show something else which is indirect, but it is lawful to use figurative language which does not reveal the points under discussion. For example, see 2 Sam. 17:19.

All cases can be evaluated by the use of this rule. Yet the examples of various godly people ought not be imitated indiscriminately. For often in these cases they have fallen into sin out of fear or stupidity. From the basic teaching of the Eighth Commandment we can draw the principle that it does prohibit hiding or distorting that which ought to be said.

This definition is supported by dividing the matter of lying into certain varieties. Augustine lists eight kinds of lying which are cited at great length in Gratian and Lornbard:19 (1) Lying in the teaching of religion. (2) That which not only benefits no one but hurts someone. (3) That which benefits one person in such a way that it hurts someone else. (4) That which is done purely out of the desire to lie and deceive. (5) That which is done from a desire to please. (6) That which hurts no one and profits someone, that is, to avoid hurting his person. (7) That which harms no one and benefits someone in order to avoid harm to his property. (8) That which hurts no one and benefits no one, as in the case of protecting a person from some ailment of his body. Augustine himself correctly brings in this distinction in commenting on Matthew 5, and the scholastics draw from this the commonly held distinction that there are three kinds of lying: malicious, purposeful, and jesting. Thomas adds this distinction," Certain lies are sinful in that they say too much and others that they say too little."